Coming just a week after Saturday Night Live delivered a truly incisive summary of what unites — and divides — certain portions of the electorate, this week’s cold open that broke the fourth wall was especially hard to take at face value. The final show before Tuesday’s smackdown began with a mock CNN interview of both Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton. The sketch mostly took potshots at cable news, with Cecily Strong’s Erin Burnett grilling Clinton about her email non-scandal while Trump literally made out with a Klansman on camera. Fair enough. But for a moment, Baldwin broke character, telling McKinnon, “I just hate yelling stuff at you like this … I just feel so gross all the time.” It was a halfhearted, equivocating feint toward finally blaming the right candidate for the election’s tone … and then the two rushed into the streets of Manhattan where Baldwin embraced a Latino family and McKinnon hugged a man wearing a “Trump That Bitch” shirt. The intent was to be a little ridiculous and a little sincere; the effect was showing Trump atoning for his wrongdoing and Clinton forgiving it. In what’s hopefully their last appearance together for a good, long time, Baldwin and McKinnon acted out the ultimate false equivalence: lamenting a division without interrogating the very concrete reasons we’re divided in the first place.
And then, not an hour later, Weekend Update opened with a slew of one-liners about … Hillary Clinton’s emails. Which may have undermined the opening’s point, but was entirely in keeping with SNL’s preferred approach to election satire.
From the beginning (and like the rest of the late-night comedy world), SNL has struggled to articulate a clear perspective on this particularly painful iteration of America’s quadrennial horserace, flattening a flawed candidate and a bona fide monster into two equally lovable screw-ups. Their default stance has been a cynical and easy “They’re both terrible” that plays to people’s exhaustion without probing it. McKinnon herself brought 18 months of equivocation to a head by breaking character to state, point-blank, “We can’t tell you who to vote for.” It was a platitude one might chalk up to just being part of broadcast television (even if SNL’s own network-mate Seth Meyers clearly doesn’t have the same problem). But this episode in particular didn’t try to say nothing so much as it tried to be everything: a participant in the week-by-week churn and an outsider critique of it; a blandly nonpartisan call for unity and smart-aleck spoof of one. It didn’t quite succeed at being any of those things.
McKinnon’s plea was exactly the kind of meaningless gesture mocked later in the episode with the Update hosts’ faux-spirational monologue: “Who cares if we can’t agree on global warming or religion? It doesn’t matter, because someday, we’re all gonna drown and burn in hell together … I know right now it seems like we’re hopelessly divided, but soon we’ll all come together as a country to begin that long journey toward impeaching whoever we just elected.” This speech, combined with their contrasting takes on the latest (and now hastily reversed) development in the email pseudo-scandal, indicated that Update and the mothership were at odds with one another. (To be fair, Update has its own writing staff and joke contributors.) The cold open earnestly asked us to come together; Update sarcastically demonstrated doing so is useless. One pushed us to look past the FBI’s electioneering; the other used it for one-liner fodder. There’s something valid in both those angles — but by not committing fully to either, SNL invalidated them both. The show had enough cynicism to gesture at the concept but not enough to apply it to itself.
SNL officially closed out its election build-up with a visit from Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, a perfectly on-brand choice for a show that’s imported alums and outside talent for every major political impression besides Clinton. And yet beloved as Church Lady (and synergistic Carvey’s new Netflix special) may be, the character’s a noticeably poor fit for this election, the embodiment of an evangelical sensibility that peaked in the Reagan era (when she debuted), petered out during the second Bush presidency, and is notably without a champion in 2016. Ostensibly called in to talk about a Catholic church threatening its congregation with eternal damnation if they didn’t vote for Donald Trump, Carvey mostly stuck to delivering catchphrases in that unmistakable sing-song of condescension, and avoided fixing his alter ego’s literally-holier-than-thou scorn on a specific target. Instead, Carvey confined his election commentary, fittingly, to one last false dichotomy: “a bitter female android from the ’90s” versus “a riverboat gambler with a big tummy and an orange head.” A consistent conclusion, if not exactly an inspiring one. You can’t ride the come-together highs of an election if you haven’t plumbed its depths, and SNL never quite managed to find the bottom.